I used to be happy to say, “I am a Christian.” I had claimed redemption by the grace of God, and I was being transformed from someone on the path of whatever–caught–my–fancy to someone who wanted to do what was good and right. In fundamentalist communities , “Are you a Christian?” is a short way of asking, “Have you had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of repenting of your sins, receiving Jesus Christ as your personal Savior, and being immersed in baptismal waters?” Outside those communities, the question would likely receive a yes from all kinds of people who didn’t meet the fundamentalist criteria for saved and bound for Heaven: Catholics, Christian Scientists, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Northern Baptists.
I accepted that one-time offer at the age of eleven at Highland Heights (Southern) Baptist Church in Wichita Falls, Texas. Among the sins that I confessed was the sin of faking it and having been baptized at age seven because I wanted to be a full-fledged church member like my parents and my best friend Billie Ann. I was baptized a second time at age fourteen with a better understanding of what it signified. I faithfully attended Sunday School, Training Union, both Sunday worship services, Wednesday night prayer meetings, Girls’ Auxiliary activities, all seasonal revival services, a Billy Graham campaign, summer camps, and many socials, designed to keep us from the evils of dancing and drinking. (I spent some of my happiest coming-of-age years at Baylor University where, it was rumored that the major benefactress of the beautiful Student Center with its elegant Drawing Room–it had no Ballroom such as the ones enjoyed at more worldly institutions like Southern Methodist University–had willed that it should be burned to the ground if a “social dance” was ever held there.)
It was not an unhappy way to grow up. I had friends and fun-loving acquaintances at those meetings and socials. I loved church activities, didn’t miss social dancing very much and felt very sinful when I slipped up and indulged in it, and even though Presbyterians were way cooler at school than Southern Baptists, I was not ashamed to identify myself as a real Christian. (It was rumored that Presbyterians sprinkled babies and did not require baptism-by-immersion, thus falling into the category of not-real Christians in my fundamentalist mind.) So what if I was not on top in the high-school hierarchy? I belonged to Jesus and walked with His people, kindhearted folks who brought casseroles and fresh-baked pies to houses where someone was sick or dead.
I’ve read some books, met some people, attended a few social dances, and done some thinking since those times. I used to believe that years of living and study would provide answers to big questions, but they have only raised more and bigger questions. There are the usual ones: Why do good people and innocent children suffer? Why does God’s grace require a blood sacrifice? Where is the line between superstition and faith? Where did God come from? I understand God by picturing Him as a white-bearded Man in the Sky who looks suspiciously like Santa Claus in a night shirt, but I know that God is much more than the Person I imagine. God is not even a “He” in any human sense. God is the Great Unanswered Question.
I cannot understand God any more than the tiny insect I just flipped off my page, casting it into outer darkness, can understand me, but God, in Earth’s historical time, took on the form and feelings of a biological person that I call Jesus. I study stories told by Him and about Him. He never wrote a book, led an army, or presided over a nation. He didn’t own land or have much money. He had no access to wi-fi, never married, and left no descendants that we know of. He died in a cruel and shameful manner, leaving a handful of disheartened followers. Nevertheless, He was called Emmanuel, God With Us, and His spark of divinity ignited a movement of people who have taken Him at His Word.
It is a movement that, no matter what you call it or how it is misunderstood and misused, sometimes changes lives for the better. In the movement’s early days, there was no Bible. The Hebrew people (all of the early followers were Hebrew people) had the Torah, though most of them likely knew the stories only by word of mouth. There was no New Testament, no gilt-edged Moroccan leather book–only told and re-told stories and visibly changed lives that motivated people to follow The Way of Jesus, the Christ. That leather-bound Bible tells me that Christian was a name first applied, perhaps mockingly, in Antioch many years after Jesus left the planet.
This sounds a little weird, even to me, but I perceive that the Great Unanswered Question interacts with me. I’ve never heard a disembodied voice or seen a bush burning with fire that doesn’t consume. I’ve never even been certain beyond a reasonable doubt that what I was experiencing was the voice of God, but in retrospect I see things that, when considered all together, I can only say were Divine Interventions.
I don’t mean the near-misses that happen to believers and unbelievers alike, filling us with awe, though I can’t discount the possibility of a divine hand that kept me from harm in a rollover the day after my sixteenth birthday. On a larger but less remarkable scale, I don’t discount the possibility of angelic guidance in millions of ways that I never perceived: the tornado that didn’t hit my school, the plane I didn’t take. I don’t discount those possibilities, but talking about them too much risks falling into superstition, a poor substitute for faith.
I see life as a miracle in which I, like the little-bitty thing skittering across my paper, have received a tiny amount of energy and freedom, and a small amount of time in which to experience them. The tiny creature’s existence is of very little interest to me, but apparently I am of much interest to the Great Unanswered Question. I didn’t create the tiny creature, but my Great Unanswered Question created both of us. He has not answered all of my questions. Not even close. But He does answer a few.
I was once proud to say, “I am a Christian,” but I once had more answers than questions. Maybe I can no longer identify with those who have all answers and few questions. Maybe I will just do my best to understand and follow the teachings and examples of the Unanswered-Question-As-Person, Jesus, Yeshua, Christ, Emmanuel, and hope that someday, like the first-century disciples at Antioch, I will be recognized as a Follower and named accordingly.
(Image: ruins of Antioch in Syria, where, according to Acts 11:26, the disciples [of Jesus] were first called Christians)